Seth Bisen-Hersh Has Writer’s Block

April 27, 2009
Seth Bisen-Hersh

Seth Bisen-Hersh

The term “hyphenate” may have been invented for Seth Bisen-Hersh. He’s a composer-lyricist-accompanist-vocal coach-and occasional performer who has been making quite a name for himself in musical theater and cabaret circles around town for the past few years. He has written and performed six cabaret acts of original material – including The Gayest Straight Man Alive, Neurotic Tendencies, and Why Am I Not Famous Yet? – and composed the original musicals The Spickner Spin, Meaningless Sex, and Trivial Pursuits. He also works steadily as a musical accompanist and vocal coach (whose students, by the way, get their own weekly showcase at Don’t Tell Mama).

This week, Seth reprises Writer’s Block, his cabaret show about…well, just what the title promises. The show’s five-person cast (including Seth himself on both piano and vocals) sing songs about having sex with your co-workers, how your girlfriend’s mother really feels about you, and a multitude of other emotional and sexual barriers.

With a week to go before the show’s opening night on Restaurant Row, Seth visited the ol’ blog to talk more about it, his background and training, and some other projects he’s working on. Enjoy!

I’d like to start by asking you to talk a little bit about what Writer’s Block is about.

Writer’s Block covers a period in my life from where my fifth cabaret act, Why Am I Not Famous Yet?, left off. The songs cover reasons I felt blocked from being creative. I hesitate to give too much away, but the audience can expect an emotional journey replete with tears and laughter.
 
Why’d you decide to revive it for a second go-round?

When you do a show, inadvertently, not everyone who wants to come can see it. Thus, I always reprise my shows. Furthermore, the show resonates differently upon a six month reflection, so I can bring more depth to the songs.
 
The show features 16 original songs. That doesn’t sound like writer’s block to me. What gives?!

The title refers to an existential crisis I was having about what to write next. The show follows my process in trying to figure out the next step on my path, as I tried to work through what was blocking me creatively.
 
You wrote and star in the show, but there are other performers also. Who do they play?

After doing two solo cabaret acts, friends suggested that it might behoove the material if I wasn’t singing it all myself. Therefore, I took their not-so-subtle hints. For my third act, I expanded to do a two-person show, and since my fourth act, I have settled on the formula of three girls, a guy, and myself. Having a full cast allows for group numbers, harmonies and diversity in deliverance of the material.
 
How did you first become interested in theater, composing, and songwriting?

My first lead role was in 4th grade as the Giving Tree in The Giving Tree. From there I went to star in 5th grade as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and the summer after elementary school, as Winthrop at a high quality community theater production of The Music Man. Before I knew it, I was doing two shows at a time, all year round through college.

My first song was called “I Love My Mom.” I wrote it for my Mom’s birthday when I was 12, and to this day it is still my mother’s favorite song of mine. From that moment on, I wrote frequently. I have always been prolific, which I blame on my over-active mind that refuses to relax. I have a Bachelors of Science in Music Composition from MIT (besides the more practical Bachelors of Science in Computer Science and Engineering), and I took classes in musical theater writing and joined the songwriter’s club while getting my Masters in Music Technology at NYU.  Both helped me immensely in honing my craft.
 
You’re also a successful vocal coach and accompanist. What made you break into those fields as well?

Necessity. Not having a nest egg, I needed some way to garner income. While at NYU, I started accompanying vocal lessons. Some of the teachers told me I could make a career as an accompanist, and rather than get a computer job, I thought I’d make a go of it. It took a few years, but I finally found my niche in cabaret, as well as accompanying auditions – both situations where my quick sight reading skills and flourishing flair were a boon rather than a detriment. I started developing skills as a coach as I watched and listened attentively at auditions to the reactions and feedback given by directors, casting directors, etc. Plus, I am an obsessive cast recording collector, so having over 1600 cast recordings was a big help to clients in finding new repertoire.
 
What’s up next for you after this?

More pounding the pavement. I have written the score to a children’s musical, Stanley’s Adventures, that is tentatively slated for Manhattan Children’s Theatre this fall. I have almost completed the score to a charming musical comedy, More to Love, which is currently being shopped around to Off-Broadway producers. I have just begun a new musical satire. Starting in the fall, I’m planning to do a series of concerts of the best of my over 100 cabaret songs with Broadway talent. Additionally, I’m working on my seventh cabaret act, I’ll Relax When I’m Dead. Other than those projects, I’m doing my audition workshop again this summer, as well as continuing my weekly talent showcases at Don’t Tell Mama to infinity and beyond!


nytheatre mike Interviewed by Martin Denton

April 25, 2009

 

Well, the tables have been turned on your intrepid interviewer – now I’m getting interviewed for a change. None other than Martin Denton himself, the Big Kahuna over at nytheatre.com, has just interviewed me for his blog, the nytheatre i. The mammoth two-part interview is part of Martin’s “Good News Initiative” for the blog, which he calls “stories from the world of indie theater that make us happy.” I’m glad to bring a smile to his face. My thanks to Martin for doing this. It’s a great thrill and an honor.

Anyway, the interviews covers everything under the sun: my recent Tartuffe gig, my work as an audition coach, my monthly newsletter, this here blog, and a bunch of other stuff. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. Enjoy!


Adam Szymkowicz Examines Some Pretty Theft

April 20, 2009
Adam Szymkowicz

Adam Szymkowicz

You know those super-prolific writers whose plays always seem to be opening somewhere, or who are certainly always working on something (or several somethings)? Well, playwright Adam Szymkowicz is one of those scribes. In the past couple of years, the author of Nerve, Food For Fish, and Susan Gets Some Play, has invaded the New York Indie Theater scene with quirky, offbeat plays featuring melancholy characters who yearn to connect with each other. His latest work, Pretty Theft, is no different: it follows two bad girls on a cross-country trip that includes an autistic savant and a mysterious thief who claims he cannot be caught. 

With Pretty Theft opening this week, under the auspices of Flux Theatre Ensemble (one of nytheatre.com’s 2008 People of the Year), Adam stopped by the ol’ blog to talk about the play, how he manages his career, and the common threads that bind his works together. Check it out…

You’re a pretty prolific writer, it seems, who writes about a wide range of topics and has a wide range of interests. Where do you find ideas and inspiration for your plays?

Sometimes something will just come to me. I don’t remember where Incendiary came from. I think I woke up one day and decided I wanted to write a film noir-inspired play about a female fire chief/firesetter who falls in love with the detective investigating her fires.

Sometimes I just think to myself, I like to write a play about pirates, for example, and then I figure out what is already out there about pirates and what I want to say with my pirate play. Pretty Theft was about examining theft in various forms. Open Minds was an Orwellian tragicomedy about the Patriot Act. Sometimes I’m interested in certain types of people or flaws or maybe I want to write about war or the economy and if I actually do it, I have to find my way in. What is it that I have to say about this thing that needs to be said? I also write about love a lot.

You’re currently living in Minnesota. Taking that into consideration, how hands-on can you be with the Pretty Theft rehearsals here in New York?

I’m actually in the city for two weeks or so and slowly day by day getting a little broker each day I’m here. But it has to be done. My presence is, I like to think, very helpful in rehearsals. So I’m here for a couple weeks of rehearsals and then I’ll see the opening and fly back.  I’m catsitting on Staten Island right now and will be crashing on a sofa in Astoria next week. My parents live in a small town in Connecticut and so I’ll also get to see them while I’m here.

From reading your blog, I get the impression that you are very diligent about promoting your work and your career. What strategies do you use for this purpose? And what’s left over for your agent to do?

I think many people who would have otherwise never heard of me know me because of my blog. I also went to two grad schools and was a member of many writing groups in New York. I have met lots of people in theater and it always helps to talk to lots of people and see lots of theater, both for people to get to know you and for you to get to know them. I think being known is helpful, or at least it doesn’t hurt. Another good thing to do is to submit lots and lots of plays. I have spent the first ten years of my playwriting career sending out bazillions of submissions. Like at least to 100 places per play. I have slowed down some at this point, partially because my agent does more of the heavy lifting and partially because I just got too tired to continue at that pace. I probably sent Pretty Theft to well over 150 theatres. It was done at a couple of small theatres in limited runs and was workshopped at Juilliard, but this is going to be the big deal production and I’m really looking forward to it.

How did you first become interested in writing?
 
I was an actor since kindergarten, was in over 30 plays before I was 20. But I wasn’t getting what I wanted from it and I decided to be a writer instead. Because I knew plays so well from memorizing them and reading them, when I started to write on my own, I wrote plays first.

In your opinion, what are some of the common characteristics that bind all your works together? What makes each of them an “Adam Szymkowicz play”?

That’s a hard question. Because I see threads in common from play to play but they’re subconsciously there. Plays written close together often have more in common than those written years apart. There is often a romantic relationship. But not always. My plays are usually funny and often sad. I think it’s funny when people are bad at their jobs or when they have trouble relating to others. I like writing about people trying to connect. My plays are sometimes called quirky. I don’t think that’s inaccurate. I like characters who are a little off or in some way outside of mainstream society. I like to write plays that I think are fun to watch too. Pretty Theft and Nerve have dance. Herbie, Poet of the Wild West and Incendiary have shootouts. Hearts Like Fists has hand-to-hand combat. Deflowering Waldo has a monster. I write the kind of plays I would want to see.

For some reason, a lot of my plays have funerals or burials in them. In my newest play, Elsewhere, someone is buried alive. Pretty Theft has an avoided funeral. Fat Cat Killers and Herbie both have a scene where people are digging graves. Food For Fish has a coffin in the center of the living room because the characters aren’t ready to bury their father yet. He’s been there a year. That’s also a play that takes a lot from Chekhov. Herbie is a wild west retelling of Hamlet. Sometimes a line from one play shows up in another play in a different context. Open Minds and Herbie both have characters named Herbie in them. There are three different Bobby’s in three of my plays. Sometimes I don’t see the most obvious connections until years later. I better just keep writing.

What’s up next for you after this?

Well, production-wise, this summer, Herbie is going up in DC, and Food For Fish is getting produced in Atlanta (its 8th production). I have at least one but possibly four development places to go this summer. Four is probably too many, and I couldn’t afford that, but they wouldn’t all be the same play or anything.

Writing-wise, I am writing a novel in spurts and have been for a couple years. I’m also trying to get into TV and film. I have a pilot that is being passed around and I have a film I want to write next. There is also always a new play on the horizon.

I’m in Minneapolis because my wife got a Jerome fellowship there and she was required to be there for it. But the year is almost up. We’re not really sure what happens next. We are trying to think of how to get to where we need to get to next. When I think of the future, it is both fun and scary.

But I’m hoping what happens next is that I will somehow find a way to make a living at this thing. I am still looking for an anonymous patron to write me a large check. Or, you know, whatever really happens.


Chance Muehleck Gathers Up The Nerve Tank

April 17, 2009
Chance Muehleck

Chance Muehleck

For those of you who like your theatergoing a little more risky and adventurous, you need look no further than The Nerve Tank. Billing itself as “the exploratory and development wing” of its parent organization, LIVE Theater Company, The Nerve Tank creates theatrical performances through non-traditional rehearsal and composition methods with its tight-knit band of actors and designers. Their current production, A Gathering, epitomizes The Nerve Tank’s ethos perfectly: the piece is a dark, metaphysical thriller that questions identity and uses movement, spoken word, design elements, and a rotating cast of six actors to smash theatrical conventions.

With the show currently in the middle of a three month run at The Brooklyn Lyceum‘s downstairs theater – which is a 4,000 square foot former public bath – Chance Muehleck, co-founder of The Nerve Tank and author of A Gathering, visited the ol’ blog to chat about the show, the company, and what the heck it all means. Check it out…

I’d like to start by asking you what A Gathering is about and where the idea for it came from.

The idea came in a recycled thought. I had this raw, cavernous warehouse in mind, and was imagining who might live there. They would need to seem like extensions of the space. So I settled on three personas, and they started coughing up all this language. They became physical manifestations of things that were evoked by that stripped-down warehouse. Then it really got strange, because I began treating the narrative as a liability. I thought: What happens to a computer program when it gets infected? It goes haywire. There are different levels of infection in the piece; some of it is generated by the presence of an audience, and some by the nature of the space itself. I always considered A Gathering a performance first, something living and changeable, so that’s where my private work ended and the collaborative work began.

A Gathering is in the middle of a three-month run, which is an unusually long time for an Indie Theater show. How did you manage to secure such a long run and what made you want to do that?

The long run was both a marketing tactic and an aesthetic choice. The Brooklyn Lyceum is a great, unique space, but it’s not as well known in the Indie Theatre community as, say, The Brick or Collapsible Hole. We wanted to give audiences time to discover a very cool Brooklyn venue. The schedule is actually an extension of our residency—instead of rehearsing every Thursday, now we’re performing. And it gives the company time to discover things about the piece. I think there are things you can learn in three months that you simply can’t in three weeks. Questions that seemed resolved can resurface in different ways. And with A Gathering, which is so much about individual perception, those questions are essential.

The show features a rotating cast of actors, all of whom take turns doing the show. Could you elaborate on how that system works and why you chose to do the show that way?

Melanie Armer, the director and my co-conspirator, had to make some practical decisions based on our 16-week run. There are six actors and three characters, but rather than creating an understudy system, Melanie allowed each performer to find his or her own version of a role. Which means the show can be radically different depending on which configuration you’re seeing. And we have an amazing company that’s very much up for that challenge. So we’re approaching questions of identity in two ways: Within the text (where age, gender, and other signifiers are traded), and within the constructs of the show itself.

Your theater company, The Nerve Tank, is in residency at The Brooklyn Lyceum. What does that mean exactly and how did you score the residency?

The residency means many things for us. We can play, experiment, fail, fail better. We can develop work that uses the space to its best advantage. With A Gathering, we kind of just wanted to get out of its way. I think you can fuck up a perfectly good theatre by imposing too many elements on it. Our designers really understand this; they respond to each set of givens with open eyes and open ears. And we have the freedom to move into more elaborate, multimedia kinds of projects. Kismet had a lot to do with how the residency came to pass; we were looking for a home, and the Lyceum was looking for a company to help raise its visibility. We happened to contact them at the right time!

The Nerve Tank is the development wing of its parent theater company, LIVE Theater. Could you explain further the difference between the two and elaborate on their relationship to each other?

As it relates to The Nerve Tank, “parent” is the right analogy for LIVE. We produced some wonderful shows under LIVE, and may do so again. But it was founded with a traditionally text-based agenda. I started feeling that it couldn’t keep up with the directions we wanted to go. The Nerve Tank is a rapidly-growing, insatiably curious child, and as such requires our full attention. When we say it’s the developmental wing of LIVE, we mean that we create projects in a non-hierarchical way, rather than starting with The Play and ensuring that its message is codified and delivered. I guess that sounds nebulous, but there’s a great deal of rigor involved in the process. When so many things are on the table, you begin to see what’s truly essential for an engaged experience.

You and Melanie have been collaborators for a long time now. What do you two bring to each other’s work that no one else can?

This is a tricky one. It depends on the day. We’re both quite stubborn, but we tend to find things together that we wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s a scene in A Gathering that consists of five words. And one of them is a nonsense word. I usually attend rehearsal, but I was absent the day that scene was worked. What Melanie and the cast(s) came up with was astonishing to me. She built a physical vocabulary that enlarges the moment and touches many other aspects of the piece. So, while I wasn’t in the room, my text was, and so was the foundation we’d laid. It comes back to those old tropes: Trust and perspective. Or trust in perspective.

What do you have lined up next for yourself, The Nerve Tank, and LIVE?

We’ve just determined that the next piece will be about the Bauhaus. It’s now called City on the Edge of the World, and we’re developing it with German dramaturge Lutz Kessler. It’s a dense, loaded subject that involves many different theories and personalities. The company is taking a retreat in June to do some research and formulate a working method. It’ll ultimately be a trans-national project: At the same time we’re working at the Lyceum, Lutz will rehearse with a group in Germany. The plan is to videotape our efforts and start a conversation that will become part of the performance. Next, for me, is a large glass of wine and some Celebrity Apprentice. How about you?

I’m going to hunker down with some Yankees baseball myself. But that glass of wine sounds good. Thanks.


Eisa Davis Makes a Mixtape

April 8, 2009
Eisa Davis

Eisa Davis

In case you haven’t noticed, actor-playwright Eisa Davis has been on quite a roll the past couple of seasons. Her play Bulrusher was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and she starred in both the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions of the hit musical Passing Strange, for which she won an OBIE Award. This week, theatergoers can experience both her acting and writing talents simultaneously when New Georges and the Hip-Hop Theater Festival launch the premiere of Eisa’s new play, Angela’s Mixtape, which spans three decades in telling the autobiographical story of the author’s radical Bay Area upbringing in a family that includes her famous aunt, the professor and activist Angela Davis (whose notoriety in the early 1970s reached such great heights that both John Lennon and The Rolling Stones wrote songs about her).  Eisa plays herself in a production that moves, according to the show’s press materials, “as smoothly as a DJ fading from song to song. Each track, each memory, has a built-in switch to the next, for theatrical momentum that keeps on building.”

On the eve of the play’s opening, Eisa visited the ol’ blog to talk about its origins, the challenges of playing herself, and, of course, her legendary aunt. Check it out, people…

This is obviously a very personal project for you. What inspired you to write it?

There were a few sparks. I wrote it in 2003 when the Hip-Hop Theater Festival asked me to present a reading of a new piece and this was the thing that fell out. Particularly because my mentor, the playwright Adrienne Kennedy, had urged me to write about Angela and my family. Another important reason was that I wanted to document how and why I’d evolved, as it seemed to be a specific story that many may not have seen before yet could identify with. And last but not least, I wanted to have a conversation with my family about some of these issues and as you’ll see in the play, that hasn’t always been the easiest process for me to initiate.

This is a memory play with the musical structure of a mixtape. Why did you choose that particular structure? And how does it specifical ly serve the narrative?

It’s always funny to answer questions about plays as if there was rational choice involved. I follow urges, needs…and then once the play is down on the page looking entirely alien from what I expected it to be, I get to work with brilliant directors and actors and hear back from friends, audience members (and in this case, family) to shape it into what the work itself wants to become. So the mixtape was the natural form for the content of play because it’s intensely personal, it’s idiosyncratic, it’s rhythmic, and it isn’t linear. Like a lot of plays, the narrative is about a kid trying to figure out how she fits in the world, and a mixtape seemed the perfect way to share her epistemology on her own terms.

I imagine that the task of playing yourself in a piece you’ve also written is a slippery slope. Why did you decide to do that? And what are the challenges you’ve faced, so far, in playing yourself?

I don’t know how to play myself. I really don’t. I’m six years old in parts of the play, and I don’t remember that. So I’ve tried to just feel like I did then. And I ask Liesl, the director, if it’s annoying. I wrote the play as a fun thing to do with my cousin Cecilie, who’s also an actress. But she and I don’t have to be in the play for it to land, thank goodness. We actually had a production in Atlanta last year with the actor Ayesha Ngaujah playing the character of Eisa. And it stood on its own. In this production in New York, Ayesha is playing my cousin Cecilie and I’m playing Eisa. One of the hardest challenges in the process has been delineating when I have to be an actor and when I have to be a writer, learning how to protect each from the other.

How aware were you of your aunt’s notoriety when you were growing up? And what kind of influence has she had on your life?

I knew that she had an aura about her, gave inspiring speeches, that there had been a trial and an international movement to free her and an acquittal. I knew that everyone else treated her as a woman of significance. But I didn’t really understand her in the way that other people saw her until I left home and went to college and studied her and the movement and philosophical schools she was part of. Her influence on my life is impossible to measure–my mother and I in particular are in a dynamic with her that is symbiotic. You know, it’s a two way street. It seems to me that Angela’s always taken pains to keep her public stature one thing, and her relationships another. This is not to say that she isn’t personal in her political engagement, as she is, very much. But any burden I’ve ever felt is something I’ve taken on myself.

What first drew you to playwriting? And what made you decide to pursue a career as both an actor and a writer?

I always acted and wrote little stories. They were inextricably connected in my mind. I would make up shows to do with Cecilie, as well as with any and all available children after dinner. My former stepfather is a filmmaker so I even started writing a screenplay when I was six–in which I was a character. Just kid fun, you know? But it continued to be something that I enjoyed and took refuge in. So these hobbies became how I make my living–but not without hesitation. I may have fantasized about being on Fame like every other kid in the 80s, but I didn’t really imagine that I’d have to (or want to) put in the work Debbie Allen was talking about in the immortal words “You want fame? Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat.” I had a lot of fear about pursuing an artistic life–because it would mean taking major risks daily. But being happy, and helping the people around you become happy, is worth any sacrifice, and creating live performances is what I love to do.

What’s up next for you after this?

This summer I’m working on another new play with director Liesl Tommy, who did both Angela’s Mixtape and The Good Negro at the Public. It’s called The History of Light. The Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia is putting it up. I’d really like to go on a surfing trip. Paying rent would be a good idea too.


Rising Phoenix’s Resident Power Duo

April 2, 2009
Julie Kline and Denis Butkus in "Birthday"

Julie Kline and Denis Butkus in "Birthday"

Rising Phoenix Repertory is not a company to rest on its laurels. Coming off the success of their Off-Broadway run of Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson’s Too Much Memory last December, one wouldn’t blame them for taking the rest of the winter off and fielding future commercial offers. Instead, they immediately set up shop once again at the Seventh Street Small Stage (a back room at the East Village hotspot Jimmy’s No. 43 which serves as RPR’s permanent theatrical home) and hit the ground running with a pair of new plays by Crystal Skillman. The first, Nobody, garnered rave reviews and sellout crowds in February. The second, Birthday, now playing until April 10th, is poised to follow in their footsteps of its predecessor: at least half of the show’s run is already sold out.

Birthday showcases the talents of RPR mainstays Denis Butkus and Julie Kline, both of whom are also Artistic Associates with the company. They have appeared together previously in RPR’s productions of Don’t Pet the Zookeeper by Napoleon Ellsworth and Skillman’s short play, The Ride, and are quickly establishing themselves as the company’s resident power duo.

In the midst of preparing for Birthday‘s opening, Denis and Julie visited the ol’ blog to talk about the play, the joys of working together, and their ongoing gig with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Check it out…

Let’s start with the basics: what can you tell us about the characters each of you are playing in Birthday?

Julie: My character is Leila – she’s an open-hearted, very sensitive, kinda hilarious girl reaching the end of her twenties and having just about the worst day of her life when she meets Kyle.  What I admire about her is although she’s been pounded emotionally, she deals with her pain by making fun of herself and reaching out to connect.  She’s like all of us – lonely, looking for love (sometimes in all the wrong places) but never gives up, and risks sharing the silly, intimate parts of herself with just about anybody who will listen.  Thankfully, Kyle is really good at listening.

Denis: My character’s name is Kyle. He’s a quiet guy who has retreated to the back room of a bar to find some solitude after a really bad day. It’s here that he meets Leila, a complete stranger and has an immediate connection with her. What I love about these two people is how they deal with the circumstances that have been dealt. They are both experiencing horrible things in their lives and are fighting to overcome them with hope, laughter and joy. Daniel [Talbott, the director of Birthday] put it best, in rehearsal, when he said, “Most characters are trying to avoid falling in the pit. These two are already in the pit and are using each other to climb out of it”

I understand these parts were written specifically for both of you by playwright Crystal Skillman. Does that information change how you approach and rehearse the role, or does your preparation remain the same regardless?

Julie: I think Leila and I are definitely similar, undoubtedly due to Crystal capturing some things about me and putting it in the play, which is a really wonderful gift.  It definitely makes it easier to find ways into the character, but I also have to remember that Leila is not me, and to make her simply me would be reductive.  I want to give her the full space she deserves. 

Denis: Crystal really knows how to write for Jimmy’s. I’m always excited to read what she comes up with because she always uses the real Jimmy’s in her plays and because of that authenticity, they are always uniquely grounded in the space. I think I always approach the work we do at Jimmy’s in much the same way. It usually starts with lots of questions for Daniel and Crystal. From the answers and thoughts that they have, I start to form the character and we all get more specific about the story. We are always looking to tell the story in the most essential, human way. Sometimes that means cutting some text, other times adding a word here and there for clarity. When we started rehearsals my instinct was that Kyle should say a lot less then Crystal had originally written, especially at the beginning of the play. So we cut a few of his lines at the very beginning and at other moments throughout to add to the sense that these are two strangers who have never had a conversation, which infuses Kyle and Leila’s relationship with a really interesting sense of awkwardness. Overall, any work we do at Jimmy’s demands simplicity and hyper-naturalistic, almost cinematic, acting. We call it the “truth-box” and I think that really says everything about how we work there from the writing to the acting. If you are telling a lie, the audience is going to be the first to see through you as a faker. So we have to be really truthful with our imaginations and relaxed in our acting to pull it off. Most importantly, Julie and I we have to be really in tune with each other and respond in the moment. When we succeed in that, it is absolutely thrilling storytelling.
 
This is the third time you two have appeared in a two-hander together. What do you like about working with each other? And how do you two specifically work together in rehearsals?

Julie: Denis and Daniel both are the brothers I never had.  So it’s basically a big family love/teasing fest when we’re together.  With a lotta chai lattes thrown in. I feel so lucky to work with them.  Denis and I have gotten to know each other on and off stage for the past four years or so, and I’d say we have a definite understanding of each other as actors. There’s a real support there on stage, I know D’s gonna catch me regardless of what happens. (And at Jimmy’s, some crazy stuff can happen!) This is also exemplified by how Denis stepped into the main role in Don’t Pet the Zookeeper last summer three days before we opened and I never felt a second of fear!  He’s just solid.

Denis: Jules is such an open actress. Her ability to give herself over to a role is an amazing thing to watch in rehearsal and in performance. She’s also tenaciously intelligent and her questions often spur my own questions about whatever we are working on and give me a deeper understanding about the story we are trying to tell. I feel really lucky to be working with her, Daniel and Crystal. They are not only amazing artists but also very dear friends. We have a lot of fun in rehearsals. There is always a lot of swearing, teasing, dirty jokes, slacking off and overall debauchery. But there is also a lot of focused, hard work. We are very much like siblings and share the kind of shorthand communication that people who have spent a lot of time working and playing together have. Sometimes that is scary because we know each other so well and can get right to the root of things if we are off track. But that is often out of a deep care and concern for each other, which gives me the power to trust them and take to hart their thoughts. These two help me take risks in my work and that is what working at Jimmy’s is all about. Feeling the fear and using it to be better, rather then letting it shut you down.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Samuel Beckett quote, “No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” And I think it encapsulates what we do as actors beautifully but it also applies to Rising Phoenix’s work at Jimmy’s. I have always felt that Jimmy’s is our home and if you can’t fail in your home, then where can you fail? As long as we are together we will keep picking ourselves up and trying to get it right again, the very next night.

How and when did you first meet each other? And how did you become involved with Rising Phoenix Rep?

Julie: Denis and I met through Daniel, and I met Daniel as a teenager back in the San Francisco Bay Area – I was 14, Daniel was 17. We acted together in a community theater production of The Diary of Anne Frank – I was Anne, he was Peter. And we’ve been friends with a shared theatre obsession ever since!

Denis: Julie and I first meet when she assistant directed Gift, a Mark Schultz play Rising Phoenix produced in the Fringe Festival a few summers ago. She had just moved to the city from Chicago and was childhood friends with Daniel in the Bay Area. My fiancée Sammy, Daniel and I all went to school together and since we graduated, we’ve been a part of Rising Phoenix along with a host of other fabulous artists.

The two of you, along with Birthday director Daniel Talbott, make up the literary department for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. How did the three of you land that gig, and what are your specific duties for Rattlestick?

Denis: I did a show at Rattlestick called St. Crispin’s Day in June of 2003. It was an important moment for me because I got my Equity card out of that gig. Since then, I have always had a special place in my heart for Rattlestick. David van Asselt, the Artistic Director, has always been very supportive of us and I see being a member of the Literary Department as a way to give back to him and his theater and as an extension of our work with Rising Phoenix. David is one of the most courageous producers of theater in the country. He takes a risk every time he produces a play. No matter if it is a young, unproduced playwright or a well-established heavy hitter, there is always the feeling that he is pushing the boundaries of what new work can be and I admire him for that.

We came into Rattlestick in the fall of 2008 and since then have spent the bulk of our time programming our two reading series and reading plays. Rattlestick still accepts unsolicited submissions so we are always up to our neck in reading. We do a private, developmental reading series where we work with playwrights eager to hear new work out loud in a private setting and we also have an Evening Reading Series where we give playwrights the chance to hear their work out loud for an invited audience. We act as a sounding board for David as he plans his season and keep up a correspondence with playwrights interested in working with the theater. It has given me much respect and admiration for the art of playwrighting. Not a playwright myself, I see now how incredibly competitive it can be trying to get a play produced and how often they have to deal with rejection head on. Actors get rejected all the time, usually silently. Playwrights have to deal with a steady stream of form rejection letters and groups of people scrutinizing their work. I think they have it a lot harder and that makes them all the more courageous for doing what they do.

Julie: Each of us had been connected to Rattlestick on our own – I was assistant director for Dexter Bullard on Lady this past fall, and Daniel’s play Slipping was part of the Dirty Works Series. It made sense for us to come on as a literary team together – we’ve been doing new play development together with RPR and that’s basically what we’re doing now at Rattlestick on a bit larger scale. We make connections to new playwrights, plan readings, and help David to plan his season. Rattlestick is an amazing place to be and family to be a part of. I deeply admire the way they conduct business and art, and the bold choices they make with the work they produce is something I think we aspire to at RPR. It’s a mentorship of sorts, and a wonderful one – we are learning so much and can apply this knowledge to our work with our company.

You both juggle busy careers in New York theater with your respective commitments to RPR. How do you each manage to balance the two?

Denis: I have always wanted to be a part of the theater and I find that wearing many hats (especially seemingly contradictory ones) helps me deepen my relationship to this very hard and incredibly rewarding art form. I don’t like to sit around doing nothing and I think that is a trap that a lot of actors fall into, I know I fell into it when I was first starting out, so I have learned to balance the commitments I make so that I can remaine an active participant in the community. I love new work and being a part of the developmental process with living artists as much as I love doing Shakespeare. I know it sounds cliché but for me everything is connected. If you want to survive in the theater and really thrive then you should put yourself in the producer’s shoes, the actor’s shoes, the playwright’s shoes and see what it takes, because it takes a tremendous amount of empathy, collaboration, tenacity and dedication to make it work. It is about being among a group of people, uniting around a story and finding a way to communicate that story to an audience. You have to put yourself out there and risk having your ego bruised when you make mistakes, that is the only way you learn where your strengths and weakness are and I think there is no better way to do this then by seeing as many perspectives as possible. It helps me be more open to the collaboration and practice my problem solving skills. Participating in the art of theater is really an act of giving; you have to be willing to give everything away (like your ego and your power) because what you gain in return is an invaluable lesson about human nature.

Julie: Since we’re all good friends within RPR, the company can be a flexible, changing thing. When one of us gets another theatre job, the rest of us just step in and take up the slack. We each do a bunch of different jobs within the company so everything gets covered, and we always support each other in our other ventures. In this way, RPR has become a source of real support for the work I do outside of the company. I personally want to do so many different things in the theatre, I can’t ever seem to pick just one, and RPR has allowed me the chance to work in all the different roles I love – actor, playwright, producer, director. For each project, I’m able to contribute in whichever role is needed to make the work happen. To me, that’s the definition of a company and is the kind of theatrical home I’ve always wanted.


Matt Sherwin’s 12:30 Grind

March 18, 2009
Matt Sherwin

Matt Sherwin

Singer-songwriter Matt Sherwin has been around and paid his dues. If one didn’t already know that from this native New Yorker’s longtime presence on New York City’s indie music scene – where he’s been performing and recording for over a decade now – then his new album, 12:30 Songs, will certainly put the world on alert. Showcasing his talent and versatility as a songwriter, Matt’s new album gives listeners a multitude of New York-ish stories and viewpoints gained by hard-won experience.

Amidst a batch of newly scheduled gigs to promote the album – including one this Friday night at the Lower East Side hotspot Pianos, which will feature the premiere of a music video for one of the album’s most notable cuts, “George Washington Slept Here” – Matt took some time to drop by the ol’ blog and talk about his music, his longtime band The Silent Killers, and the meaning of the album’s title. Good stuff, people. Check it out…

The album’s title, it seems, was partly inspired by the daily grind of a survival job. Could you talk a little more about that?

While I was writing material for 12:30 Songs, I was working in a day job in the Wall Street area.  And while the job really wasn’t bad…I wouldn’t necessarily call it the “daily grind” – I sometimes let myself feel bad about having it…that I was wasting my life, and that kind of thing.  So to make myself feel better about my predicament, I would set aside 45 minutes or so every day during lunch to work on my writing – so that I was treating writing like a job in and of itself, albeit a less time-consuming one.  I happened to take my lunch every day around 12:30, so that’s where that came from – though the title is also a bit of a nod to Randy Newman (his album 12 Songs) as well as the poet Frank O’Hara, two artists who’ve meant a lot to me. 

One of the songs, “Care,” was written twelve years ago. How come it’s only showing up on an album of yours now?

Well, around 75 percent of the song was written a decade ago, but I never felt the bridge section was working, and therefore never released it…That was part of the reason anyway.  I guess I also felt like I hadn’t earned it somehow – that I wasn’t grown up enough to really pull off the themes in the song, which deal with the loss of passion in a relationship over – as I’ve always imagined it – many years.  At the time I wrote it, I hadn’t even ever been in a consistent long-term relationship, so I don’t even know where the impetus to write it came from.  In any event, I always wanted to come back to the song, and after a few years I was able to come to terms with its themes, so I re-wrote a bridge I was really happy with, and that was it.

Another song, “George Washington Slept Here,” was inspired by your interest in the history of architecture. How so?

Ha, well that’s a slight exaggeration, but yes…I have this addiction to
The AIA Guide to New York City Architecture, and there’s a reference in there to “George Washington Slept Here architecture” – which refers to buildings of dubious historical authenticity, despite their claims to the contrary.  I just thought that was a fascinating phrase, and I knew I’d want to use it for something.  Then a few months later when I saw the Robert Redford movie The Candidate, which deals with the political corruption of this very moral man, I found myself thinking about the phrase again.  I guess it was this idea that no one is incorruptable I found interesting – and what if we took the country’s first great hero and exposed him as a total philanderer and bastard, and that might actually work on a number of levels.  So the song wound up having this real thought-out intricacy, but it initially came about in a totally random, stream-of-conscious way.

You’ve also got a couple of political/protest songs on the album, which is not your usual bailiwick. What prompted these?

I’m not a political person in the sense that I read The New York Times and watch Washington Week on a regular basis.  I do try to be aware of the issues, but then again I feel everyone’s more aware of politics than they are normally – which is one positive side-effect to the country slipping deeper and deeper into trouble.  Everyone’s affected, and everyone cares about what happens.  Maybe I didn’t really write more political songs until I felt there’d be an audience of people who’d actually care about what I had to say…I don’t know.  In any case, there’s something really, really exciting to sing songs like “George Washington” or “Walk in Single File” live and have everyone respond in an immediate way.  At those times, I feel like I’ve tapped into something everyone’s feeling, and it’s like nothing else.  Of course, I imagine people would respond much differently to those songs in more conservative parts of the country – I haven’t been able to experience that yet – but I’d like to think those songs would get a strong reaction, even if it’s negative.  Some reaction is always better than ambivalence, I believe.

You recorded with your longtime band. How long have you all been together and how did you all meet?

I’ve known a couple of the members for years – Tara since high school, I went to college with Carter, Ben I’ve known for about five or six.  Dave for four or so.  I’ve mostly met those guys through mutual friends or playing together with other musicians.  We played together as The Matt Sherwin Band for the first few years – and what’s interesting is in the last year or so, since we started calling ourselves The Silent Killers, I think we’ve become a much better band.  Of course there are a lot of reasons for that, but I do think there’s power in a name.

For the most part, you are a very personal songwriter. Who are some of your musical influences and inspirations?

Well, I think any form of art is personal, but the first album in particular had kind of a confessional ring to it, so I know what you mean.  I don’t really feel the second album has that aspect to it as much.   I’m not writing as myself all the time.  It was quite liberating to write a song like “George Washington,” which is in someone else’s voice, ostensibly Martha Washington.  You know, some of my favorite songwriters do that all the time – Randy Newman uses the “unreliable narrator” – where you don’t know if the narrator represents the author’s views, or the opposite (you often hope the opposite in his case because many of his characters are bigots and/or not such nice people).   I think that’s often a lot more interesting than some poor sap saying “look at what’s in my heart.”  I feel bad saying that, but for every Jackson Browne there are a thousand bad writers.  Speaking of which, I guess you could say he, and Randy Newman of course, were a big influence.  Who else?  Dylan, Lou Reed, The Beatles, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon. A lot of the post-punk stuff from the 80s, which meant a lot to me during adolescence – particularly Bob Mould and Husker Du, The Replacements, The Minutemen.  Elvis Costello has always been huge – someone I could look to and say, there’s someone intelligent and articulate in popular music and not afraid to show it, cool!  He’s also someone whose career I can look to as a sort of model in the sense that he doesn’t let himself be pigeonholed – doing a rock album with The Attractions here, a classical album there.  People like Randy Newman, Joe Jackson, Duncan Sheik, who do something more ambitious than just the singer-songwriter thing are very inspirational to me.

Now that the album is out, what’s up next for you and the band?

I’m really proud of the album, though right now I feel it’s like the nervous new kid at school sitting by himself in the cafeteria, or something.  He just needs to be noticed, you know?  I’m doing what I can to get radio play, press, and that kind of thing – but I really hope that if someone likes the album, that they’ll let five people know, who in turn will let more people know, and so on – a chain mail kind of thing.  It’s just about getting noticed. As for the future, I’ve got lots of things I’d like to do – write a song cycle, record with a string quartet, but you know, it all depends…what’s that old expression: ’til the money runs out?  Or is it ’til the bank collects on my debt?  Well, as long as I’m building a following and people want to see me, I believe I’ll keep doing this.  I’ve thought many times about hanging it up and becoming a teacher, an architect, a funeral director (during a prolonged Six Feet Under phase), but I think if you’re really in this, you’re in it for the long haul.  And the nice thing about the whole music industry model becoming less about major labels, and more about independent musicians taking charge of their own careers, is that from where I am now I can go just about anywhere.  No one’s holding me down or telling me what kind of music to play.  It’s kind of exciting and terrifying – in this climate anything can happen.